ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “ENDLESS SET OF POSSIBILITIES”

Posted in Discurso-Conversaciones by ARQUITECTURA-G on octubre 15, 2018

Conversation between David Van Severen and ARQUITECTURA-G on the life and work of his father, Maarten Van Severen

Published in Apartamento Magazine #21

Photography courtesy of Maarten Van Severen Foundation

The work of Maarten Van Severen (1956, Antwerp, Belgium) has always been significant for us. In fact, he’s always been present among the pictures we have in our studio. He produced a series of brilliant designs in a short but very intense career, up until his death in 2005. The reason for bringing his work here, though, is not only his objects but his interventions in space. In the last issue we talked about the work of architects Kersten Geers and David Van Severen, from Office KGDVS. David, the son of Maarten, has kindly accepted to join us again—this time to talk about the life and work of his father. Maarten studied architecture for a while in Ghent, and after several years of work and various collaborations he started producing his own furniture and adapting the spaces around him to the constant changes in his life. He was often commissioned as a furniture designer for private-residence projects, and his interventions always transformed the space in a manner that goes way beyond the furniture pieces. He is also known for his successful collaboration with architects such as Rem Koolhaas, and Maarten also renovated all the houses he lived in throughout his life. This produced a sequence of small interior projects that, for us, are crucial to his career—and that’s what we intend to focus on.

Arquitectura-G:

First of all, we would like to know a little more about his early background. How did your father become interested in design?

David Van Severen:

Well, he studied architecture. He started after high school, but he never finished it because I was born. He was a very young father—he was 22 when I was born— and only did about two years of architecture. He certainly had an interest in design and in making things, and obviously in architecture and space in general, but you have to fastforward 10 years to see the moment where he really starts making things himself. I was born in 1978, and I’d say that in the late ‘80s he started his own production. There is a period of approximately 10 years in which we lived a kind of vagabond life. There was not really a lot of work, there were no studies. He helped people and worked here and there. We lived in Japan for a while, in Tokyo—my parents, my brother, and me. Then we came back to Belgium and my parents separated. Later on he met Marij, and they got married. They had two other kids, so we are four brothers. After all that happened, it was a moment to think freely, and he started making things and designing. The idea of making things had always been in his head. There is something very Belgian there also—to have an idea and just do it. There’s the ugly side of it—the bricolage or DIY—but there’s also a craftsmanship that is still very present today. You can always find a lot of people that can help you solve a problem. He was also working with his brother, Fabian, who is a designer today, too. Fabian had a metal workshop. Maarten helped him out, and they started making stuff there. You could weld, bend, and cut steel in the workshop. He was around that workshop a lot and there were small commissions—not necessarily a table and a chair, but more like a beam or a passerelle, stuff related to architectural renovations. These were the early days, when he was searching for what he really wanted to do. I remember that place as where it all started. Then around 1988 he started to really design furniture. He started with a table, a cupboard, and a chair, all in steel. They had all kinds of different influences: this kind of craftsmanship/ atelier influence, or Memphis, or his father, Dan Van Severen, an abstract painter who painted very clean geometries. All this in a mix is very much how that first moment started. For instance, this cupboard was made in a steel L profile. It was for clothes, and it was dressed with the doors on the sides, with cow skin—not even cut straight, but just how it came.

Arquitectura-G:

We see that this thing of the skin, the leather, the extreme attention to detail, and also a very defined colour palette, accompanied him throughout his whole career.

David Van Severen:

It’s possible, yes. I think the chair is one of his best works, with the curved leather seat and a cushion on it. You see the steel legs and steel structure under it, holding the leather.
I remember there was even this big table with a long piece of leather that he found somewhere. He used it just like that, with nails in it to hold together several layers.

Arquitectura-G:

It sounds like his approach was, ‘I have some material, or I know how to work with a specific material, what will I do with this?’ instead of thinking directly about the final outcome and then figuring out how to build it. We have always found his work, and not only the furniture, to be something in between the rough and the delicate—straightforward but very sophisticated. You understand his pieces at first glance, and you can also see his strong bond with the material nature of the objects. His designs are very aligned with the way things are built. They are not just shapes with a framework added to hold them, but a single thing. It looks like he was extremely involved in the production process of his pieces. As a matter of fact, we’ve seen many pictures of Maarten welding, sanding, and so on.

David Van Severen:

As you said, I think his mindset was rather, ‘I have two hands, I can do this, I know how to weld, etc.’ Not only that, but also, ‘How can I do something with all this, something that excels, that’s the next step beyond?’ Something that has a certain level where it becomes pure beauty. If we refer back to his father—my grandfather, the abstract painter—it was the same, in a way. You could say he made very simple work; his paintings were sometimes just a simple cross, and that’s it. But it was not that simple, because the way it was made was also very important to the work: the paper or the material used for the surface, and then deciding to paint with a pencil or with a certain Indian or Chinese ink.

Arquitectura-G:

We are curious about that desire he had to search for archetypes. We think this can be seen most notably in the aluminium table. It is very essential; it’s like the essence of a table: four legs and that’s it. What makes it special is the material, the proportions, and how it is made. But it is indeed the minimum expression of a table.

David Van Severen:

Searching for archetypes is very difficult work because it puts so much pressure on something already; but I do think he believed in a certain essence of things and also beauty and purity. For him it was: ‘It has four legs, it’s a table, it’s a surface, but how do you make that surface? How do you compose it? How do you measure it?’ There’s a high level of research, and the way these simple things are actually made and come to perfection can be the most elegant or beautiful or even mysterious part. Again, it’s all connected to the idea that you have a production process and constraints in how you make things.

Arquitectura-G:

One attractive feature of his pieces is that, due to the production process, each of them is unique, with very subtle differences. They’re in between craftsmanship and large-scale industrial production. What was his design process like? Did he draw something in advance, or was it a more intuitive approach, working directly with the material and then drawing?

David Van Severen:

Well, it was drawing, for sure; he had an old drawing table. It was this awkward moment when digital drawings were still not really there. It was a process that went back and forth, with sketches and prototypes—like bending the leg of a chair to check the angle or the shape, and then bending it a little more until it looked fine. At some point the prototype becomes a real chair. I think it’s very true what you were saying: each thing has the ambition of becoming an industrial thing but never does because it’s so intensively linked to this craftsmanship. So it never makes the jump to becoming a mass product. Each product is slightly different each time, or it ages differently.

Arquitectura-G:

Given the production process is so important, was it important for him to keep a graphic archive of his production? Or to record every step he did? We have seen some pictures, but not many. We’ve also seen that some pictures were taken by him, and we get the same roughbut- delicate feeling we mentioned earlier.

David Van Severen:

He always had a camera, but he wasn’t endlessly busy with that. Again, it was that period between analogue and digital cameras, and that’s also the reason there aren’t many pictures—not only of his pieces, but of the houses we lived in. I think there’s a big shift that happened when he became ‘famous’. There was no such thing as an archive; it was just like, you make it and it is there and that’s it. The whole idea of how you got to that point was not crucial; rather, it’s your personal process and you don’t necessarily share that. There are only a few people who really know how these things are made. The idea of developing a full, public explanation—he didn’t really think of that as something that was necessary. Maybe later, yes. But it never really happened because of course there’s a big moment when real industrial production suddenly came into the picture, around 1994 or 1996.

Arquitectura-G:

Was he obsessed with perfection?

A cross section of the three bays Maarten kept as his atelier.

David Van Severen: 

Since you make it yourself, you can become obsessed with how things turn out— like with his aluminium table design and the idea of sanding its surface endlessly, almost like a form of Japanese meditation, until it becomes just perfect. That idea was always there from the beginning. When he had his atelier at the peak of his production, when things were still made there, I was around 15. There were lots of commissions, or just orders for tables and chairs, and all of them were made in the same extreme, almost absurdly obsessive way. The aluminium had to be sanded in a specific way with a specific sheet of sandpaper, then another sheet, then there’s a brush, then the polishing, and then the wax. A lot of work, a lot of craftsmanship, but also a reinvention of that craftsmanship. This was a very important time in the atelier—as a space where you make, where you test, where you do new experiments, where you know all these things are possible. Production and creation are all collapsed into one space. That’s a very important element in the whole story.

Arquitectura-G:

Were you around often?

David Van Severen: 

Yes, I was helping my father and learning to weld and sand. I’ve forgotten a lot, but I can make the aluminium table! I would be skateboarding in and around the atelier, but then three tables would have to be finished, and he would say, ‘Come help’. That’s how it went.

Arquitectura-G:

As far as we know, during all these years he lived mostly in two houses: one right next to his atelier, on Galgenberg Street, and then in another house, both in Ghent. What was this house on Galgenberg Street like, and what was its relationship with the atelier?

David Van Severen: 

There was a real and strong connection between the atelier and the house. The atelier was like a warehouse; it was an old printing factory that was bankrupt for a long time and then my father rented it. It was one of those buildings with a set of bays and a saw-tooth roof. It was in the middle of the block courtyard, surrounded by houses, and we lived in one of those houses. The only connection from the street to the atelier was through the house. This was our universe. I was with my brothers skateboarding or playing music there. It was really for us. As kids, it was great to be there. We lived there from when I was 12 till I was 15 or 16.

Arquitectura-G:

He transformed the atelier and the house next to it. Can you tell us more about those projects? Was it more like one big project or a sequence of small projects?

David Van Severen: 

More the second. There was never a big master plan; it was rather about evolving and dealing with the current situation and making it work. In the beginning we were all living in the house attached to the atelier. It was a natural extension to go to work there. It was perfect for him. That was also the moment when production got to be really important and people came to help out and work for him. In the atelier, the first stage was mostly about using what was there. Regarding the house, we started living there and he did the renovation. There was a small garden out the back. He added an extension to the house, with the kitchen going out of the block towards the garden. There were more plans drawn, but not everything he planned was built. Then the owner split the factory in two, to make a parking lot, and they needed direct access to it. To do so, the kitchen and bathroom extension had to be demolished, so we had to leave the house and move to another one. The atelier stayed, though. They made a deal and built a wall in the factory to divide the space. My father kept three bays of the factory. In this second stage, when we had to move out, he started to do more interior work in the atelier, for different purposes. The atelier was mainly used as a workshop and for offices. Later on, there was a third and final stage when my father got separated and moved out to live and work in the atelier on his own and did some interventions as well.

Some of Maarten’s last interventions in the atelier on Galgenberg Street.

Arquitectura-G:

For us, one of the most remarkable aspects of all these interventions is that you can feel the roughness of the old thing with the sharpness of a new thing. You can feel the contrast between both realities. We were talking about his object designs before, and we see that his interventions in existing spaces are somehow insertions of his objects, placed strategically here and there. You could say he used objects to arrange the space. Probably the most memorable intervention in the atelier is this brilliant window, which is almost nothing. It is the maximum expression of what a window is—an opening in the wall—with the minimum of means.

David Van Severen: 

Exactly. I also think the best interventions he ever did there were the windows. These windows were made in stage two, after splitting the building. I think it was something like, ‘Let’s make a big opening, but how can we close it to make it still look like an opening?’ It had a lot to do with the steps in his thinking; there was this very simple way of doing it. You have a rail holding this tempered glass. Then you have to somehow close it, so you use the brushes, and how can you finish the brushes with this Eternit plate? Then you make this very banal, galvanised cover to prevent the rain from coming in, and that’s it. It doesn’t overcomplicate things in any way. That’s also maybe why something that’s very different to the old structure still blends in— because of its straightforwardness. This tension between being there and almost not being there was very important, always.

Arquitectura-G:

In this last stage, when your father moved to the atelier, he had to live and work in the same place. How did this last stage
affect the space?

David Van Severen: 

Well, he made many changes to one of the bays. The part where the office was became a more private living space. There was a kind of living room with shelves and books, with the glass panels of the walls painted white, and next door there was a space with the fireplace, kitchen, and dining area. Besides that, he added a bedroom area, which was also for my brothers when they came to sleep. This was in 2000 or so. When he passed away we didn’t keep the space.

Arquitectura-G:

Where did you go when the owner told you that you had to leave the house next to the atelier?

David Van Severen:

They found an auction sale for an old building, a little school, which coincidentally happened to be next door to my grandparents’ house. We also knew the street very well because when we came back from Japan we lived in my grandparents’ house for a while. Back then, we lived in my grandfather’s atelier; my father adapted the space to live there. It’s the same story all the time: adapting spaces depending on the need. He was building all the time, and we were endlessly living on a building site, where things were never finished! Anyway, they bought this house, and the schoolyard where kids used to play when we lived at my grandparents’ house was now the courtyard of our house. Before I left home, that’s where we were living. I liked it a lot because it had this beautiful garden. We used to hang out in the courtyard, and it was perfectly oriented towards the south.
When we moved in there, he did some interventions. He added a steel staircase that led to our bedroom on the top floor, and also a bathroom and the kitchen. You were talking about the idea of perfection before, but, in my experience, it’s not there. Perfection is also when things are finished, and it was never the case. The stairs he made are a good example. They added some bamboo sticks later to prevent people from falling, and at a certain moment I had to use something to hold a railing, but I’d always used the stairs without protection. These stairs led to a hatch door that had to be opened with a pulley and a counterweight to get inside our bedroom. In my grandfather’s atelier, we had our bedroom at the top as well, but the stairs were never made; we had a ladder instead. That’s a typical example of things that were never finished.

Arquitectura-G:

We are very curious about that piece of furniture with a sink between the bathroom and the bedroom.

David Van Severen:

It became an extension of the bathroom inside a bedroom, but previously it was the main kitchen inside the main living room. They were very big spaces, where you could change the use. That’s how life was for us.

Arquitectura-G:

This question may be difficult to answer, but we would like to know what a house was for him. Which aspects or parts of a house were important for him? How did he live?

David Van Severen:

I will try to answer. I would almost say that this house, and especially all these houses we lived in, were an endless set of possibilities for different interventions at different moments. You could continuously change it, but also think about it. There was this liberty. There was also ambition, with life unfolding in every possible structure or building, and we tried to somehow give that a place. There was a lot of openness towards ‘use’, but also with very precise interventions. The house itself was rather oriented towards the family; in the evening, you came home and you had a house with a living room—but not a standard one—and a bedroom somewhere.

Arquitectura-G:

We discovered in the Maarten Van Severen Foundation archive some plans and sketches that never happened in this house, this endless work in progress. One sketch that caught our attention was the design for a kitchen under the veranda in the courtyard. Moreover, you and Kersten Geers transformed this courtyard several years later.

David Van Severen:

To be honest, I’ve never seen this sketch, but that doesn’t surprise me because there was always something new going on. This veranda was an old structure of the school. It was badly built, and it had the little toilets and sinks for kids. When my father moved to live in the atelier, Marij asked us to transform the courtyard, and we planned a kind of second house where the veranda was. My father thought the second house was a very good idea, because maybe he had the idea of coming back, but we explained to him that it wasn’t a real house to live in. It was rather an empty space that could be anything, depending on the seasons and all that. The works were finished after he died, in around 2007.

Arquitectura-G:

Was it a challenge to continue something that your father had started?

David Van Severen:

Actually, I never saw this as the work of my father. Of course it was, and they did the renovation, but in a weird way. He was making furniture. That was his work, for me. The renovations were part of life.

Arquitectura-G: 

There are some choices that put his work on the boundary of architecture. For us, his decisions were architectural.

David Van Severen:

I wouldn’t say he was a real architect. Of course he had a lot of notions about space and so on, but he was much more focused on objects, even if the object is a window that defines a space.

Arquitectura-G: 

He worked quite a lot with architects, too, most notably with Rem Koolhaas.

David Van Severen: 

Yes. His collaboration with Koolhaas came kind of early. There’s a link between Koolhaas and Belgium. It has to do with what I mentioned before—the Belgian passion for making and fixing anything. Koolhaas’ studio, OMA, had these weird designs in the late ‘80s, such as the Villa dall’Ava in Paris. At the time Koolhaas was doing that house, Xaveer De Geyter was the project architect. Xaveer had lots of trouble finding the right people to build this house. For him it was a nightmare to find the appropriate people in France. Since he had this little network in Belgium, he could ask people to make some weird stairs, to make kitchens, stuff like that. Xaveer knew my father from university—they studied architecture together—and he invited him to collaborate. They needed somebody to translate what they were drawing at OMA into reality, and this collaboration was a big success. I would even say Koolhaas understood that in Holland they couldn’t find these people, and that in Belgium strange ideas could be made because everything was always possible, because of this ‘just do it’ mindset. My father was a lot like this.

Arquitectura-G: 

We have to say that, although we knew about this collaboration, it was kind of surprising to see pictures of your father himself welding and assembling the furniture and interiors of this house and the one in the southwest of France, the Maison à Bordeaux. We see again what we mentioned about his objects, his very close bond with the material reality. He even made the formwork for the concrete kitchen.

David Van Severen: 

Yes, he was not a craftsman but rather a construction guy. This happened in Paris, and in a more extreme version in Bordeaux. I know it very well because there was a moment when I was very involved as well—just helping out, not designing or anything like that.

Arquitectura-G: 

Koolhaas said something like, ‘The virtue of Maarten’s work is that it can even pass unnoticed, while at the same time it’s extremely refined’. Weirdly enough, for us, the most memorable images of both houses rotate around your father’s work, like the stairs, the kitchen, the elevator, and the shelves in Bordeaux. Even if his work has this quiet thing, it is very strong. We can see the weight of your father’s work inside the shell of the OMA project.

David Van Severen: 

Koolhaas is such a genius in finding the right people at the right moment. He is more like a movie director, rather than somebody who will finish all these things himself. He has a great talent for organising. I think he found my father and knew how to put him in the right spot, where he could help the most.

Arquitectura-G: 

What degree of freedom did your father have in designing the pieces he built?

David Van Severen: 

A large degree of freedom. And that is also the quality of Rem; I think we should acknowledge that. He was very demanding, but at the same time very open. It was a back-and-forth process, the typical architect– interior architect discussion. Of course there was a kitchen in OMA’s plan, but there was a conversation on a very interesting level that adapted each other’s inputs until the design was decided and the house was built.

Arquitectura-G: 

His career was very intense, and his life had lots of changes in a short period of time. How did his work—both object design and interior works—evolve over the years?

David Van Severen: 

He did lots of interventions, basically in every house he lived in. And I would say that he had a kind of evolution; he got less and less complicated, he was in search of the essence, as we mentioned before. I remember the people from Bordeaux used to say, ‘The Flemish primitives have arrived!’ because they came, me too sometimes, with this car full of tools to work on the house—almost like holding hammers, working barehanded, but with so many details, so much ambition. In a later phase of his life, he also saw the limits of that: you cannot control everything at that level. He found a certain peace, if we can call it that, with the fact that things don’t have to be so complicated and can be more down to earth. This was a big struggle— the whole idea of perfection versus reality.

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